When it comes to heart health, you might not immediately think about your stress levels, yet they can have a serious impact. We explore the effect stress can have on the heart and consider methods to keep it under control and boost your overall health.
When you’re stressed, it can have a knock-on effect on your whole body. And while we don't know everything there is to know about the link between physical and mental health, there is strong evidence to support the link between stress levels and heart health.
The link between high stress levels and heart disease has been suspected for a long time, but it's only in recent years that firm evidence has come to light that suggests lower levels of stress could reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Two studies, carried out by Harvard researchers and published in renowned journal The Lancet, offer a detailed description of how stress can affect the heart. They suggest an association between high stress levels and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Indeed, the researchers concluded that being stressed could be as dangerous for your heart as smoking or having high blood pressure.1
The studies suggest that when a person is stressed, their amygdala (which is the part of the brain that deals with stress) sends a signal to the bone marrow to produce more white blood cells.
The increased number of white blood cells inflames their arteries. Inflammation has long been understood to play a part in causing heart attacks and strokes.
What it means
These two studies added greatly to our understanding of how stress affects the body generally, and the heart in particular.
The relationship between stress and heart health is a complex one, but doctors can be confident in saying that if you’re stressed, taking steps to manage that stress is important for your health.
And this is not just because of the direct impact of stress on your body.
When you’re stressed, you’re more likely to take up unhealthy habits to help you cope, such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol or overeating. These habits are bad for your heart and can increase your risk of heart attack or stroke even more.
If you think stress or bad habits might be affecting your heart health, there are various lifestyle changes you can take to help you relax and bring down your stress levels.2 We've highlighted two below, and many more can be found in this article on reducing everyday stress and anxiety.
Meditation and CBT
One study found that just 15 minutes of meditation per day reduces the risk of stroke and heart attack in people with chronic heart disease by 48%.2
Although the research looked at people who already had heart disease, practising meditation could have health benefits for everyone, including those who have high stress levels.
Regardless of factors such as age, gender and the condition of their health, people who meditate regularly tend to feel more balanced and less stressed.
A Stanford University study found that after just eight weeks of meditation, there was increased activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex that help regulate emotions, and subsequently reduce stress.2
Undergoing therapies such as CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) can also help you ‘retrain’ your brain to reduce the symptoms of stress and help you feel better.
In the short term, meditation or psychological therapies such as CBT can help to reduce the physical symptoms of stress.
Meditation is an inexpensive and accessible coping mechanism that you can practice at home whenever it suits you.
In the long term, it can actually help prevent stress in the first place, by giving you a sense of perspective and an increased awareness of your own reactions to stressful situations.
The link between physical activity and lowered stress levels is well known and well documented. Taking regular exercise is an effective way to reduces stress and boost your mood.
Activities such as walking or running that get you out into green space, or team sports which include a high degree of social interaction, are particularly good for your mental and emotional wellbeing.
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